A Train Journey Through Peru's Sacred Valley

The Andean highlands offer thrills around every bend.



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DESCENDING BY CAR into the Sacred Valley in Peru’s Andean highlands feels a bit like entering Shangri-La. From high — higher than you can even imagine — in the purplish mountains, we drop into tawny fields that have for millennia produced many of the staples on which civilization was founded: potatoes, quinoa, and corn. But even if their bounty is familiar, this breadbasket seems almost fantastical: too mountainous to be so warm, too high to be so fertile. It’s like finding a farm at the top of the Rockies or a potato patch in Antarctica. It’s bizarre to the point that this lost-world-like landscape, wreathed in sawtooth mountains, suggests itself as something out of legend.

Or maybe the altitude is getting to me. At various points during my week and a half in Peru, I feel a bit flighty in the thin air, giddy at times, anxious at others — and perhaps overly prone to visions. A few days later, while hiking up to a viewpoint to take in the sunrise between two lakes at 14,000-plus feet, I find myself completely out of oxygen and utterly speechless. It’s as if I’m at a stratospheric joint between heaven and earth, with the cotton candy sky reflected in the lake’s quicksilver mirror — or maybe vice versa — until I am totally topsy-turvy.

But we’ve only just arrived in the Urubamba Valley (a region in Peru’s Andean highlands also known as the Sacred Valley). Dropping still further, to the river valley, we are welcomed at Rio Sagrado — A Belmond Hotel designed to resemble a rural Peruvian village — by Valentina, a puckish white alpaca entirely convinced (and a little convincing) that she is completely and utterly human. When she feels she is not getting her fair share of attention, Valentina plays and dances and throws tantrums, causing the single magenta pom-pom that hangs from her necklace to flail here and there. She trails the general manager around the property as if he were her father, and generally buzzes about the gaggle of new arrivals on the riverside lawn as we chat over cocktails — she’s the star of the show.



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Across the river from the grounds, a stone-scrabble hill slopes off to a salt mine devoid of any development, a stark foil to our populated side of plenty: this side and that, shadow and light, wet and dry. This contrast is echoed by twin ceramic oxen, Torito de Pucará, in International Klein Blue and lipstick red. Traditional to the area, they sit atop the terra-cotta roofs of our hotel cottages. The figures, I am told, symbolize just such a duality: light and dark, fallow and fertile, earth and sky — a respect for which runs deep in these mountains.

To further illustrate the point, the hotel team has, for our arrival, arranged a celebratory despacho ceremony. A traditional practice of the Q’ero — an Indigenous Quechua-speaking tribe from Peru’s central mountains — the ritual serves to restore balance and to give back to Pachamama, Mother Earth. In preparation, several of Peru’s sacred potatoes (a small fraction of the more than 4,000 potato varieties native to the region), as well as lamb, chicken, pork, and corn (burly, knobbed yellow and purple cobs), go into the ground. It’s all slathered in a marinade of Andean herbs (cilantro, huacatay, oregano), wrapped in palm leaves, and covered in red-hot coals to cook for hours. Just as she provides bountiful harvests, Pachamama must receive a bounty in return. The offering, tucked directly into her fertile soil, emerges for our feast.

The next morning, serenaded and blessed by performers in brilliantly colored traditional Andean textiles, we board the royal-blue carriages of the Belmond Hiram Bingham train. Named for the Hawaiian explorer who uncovered an overgrown Machu Picchu in 1911, the train is like the Orient Express in its heyday, ferrying guests to one of the Wonders of the World, with all the wood-paneled warmth and gleaming brass splendor of Agatha Christie’s best setting. In fact, these pressed-linen-topped tables — with gleaming silver, china, and squat vases holding a single blush rose — would have been a great place to unfurl some taut drama, leery glamor, suspicion, and enmity. Instead, our merry band of pilgrims opts for a raucous party in the bar car and observation room, jostled by the track and encouraged to further rocking and rolling by pisco sours aplenty. The Bingham pisco sours, served in ceramic chalices adorned with a roadrunner-looking bird from the Pisco region, are frothy, prickly with citrus, and feature a sluff of soft sweetness. I am sure that they are the best I have ever had. So I have a few — enough that by the time we enter the hallowed archeological site between Machu Picchu and the Huayna Picchu mountains, just as the persistent rain suddenly clears, the ancient city seems to glow.


The famous citadel is everything guidebooks and travel shows make it out to be, a site-quarried stone city in a cloud forest at the roof of the terrestrial world. Framed by the Andean highlands on one side and the deepest Amazon jungle on the other, it is yet another hinge point: a beginning in both directions. And perhaps because of the weather, or the season, we have the site virtually to ourselves.

On our first day in Cusco, we wake to fireworks. Their thudding little drumbeats drop from the sky — not that the sky is very far from here, given that we’re at an altitude of 11,000 feet — followed by processions through the cobblestoned streets of the former Incan capital city. These parades celebrate saints and holy occasions, and there seems to be a saint for every day. The thick, ancient granite walls of the city’s adjacent Monasterio and Palacio Nazarenas hotels, pleasantly muffle the festive scene.

The proximity of these medieval stone buildings, originally a seminary built by the Jesuits and a convent for girls, respectively, has inspired playful local lore: it is said that there was once a tunnel linking the two, enticing priests and nuns to break their vows. At Monasterio, I have one of the best meals of my life, courtesy of revered Peruvian chef Pía León: a river trout ceviche in a prickly pear sauce; alpaca crudo that both breaks my heart (Valentina!) and blows my mind; a corn tartlet; grilled beef skewers that are an homage to the ubiquitous side-of-the-road street treats throughout the Andes; and a natural wine made from Albilla, the grape that also creates pisco.

It is in Cusco that we board the Andean Explorer, a luxury train constructed of Victorian-era carriages (shipped over from Australia, incidentally, though wholly renovated in Peru) that runs along a track initially laid by the English to haul precious metals. We begin our trip by ambling through various towns and villages to the tune of “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey emanating from the train’s Yamaha grand piano. This is not exactly the “midnight train” but I would take it going anywhere. Why, I wonder, is it so intensely transporting to be clacking along a rich and wild landscape when myriad other modes of transport would be quicker? Maybe it is precisely that leisurely, almost languid mode of locomotion that makes train rides feel so incredibly decadent. Predictably, as one does when having the utmost of any experience, we travelers begin to call up memories of past journeys and make plans for more.

As we chug along through loamy charcoal mountains bearded by golden-colored grasses, this well-traveled group in which I find myself — all of us almost childlike with glee — begins to recount stories from Shangri-Las near and far, every now and again drifting off into an awesome silence, shaking our heads at each other, in disbelief that we are here, that any of this is real, that we could be so lucky.


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Chris Wallace Writer and Photographer

Chris Wallace is a writer, photographer, and editor based in New York. His forthcoming biography of the late photographer Peter Beard will be published by Ecco Press.


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